Our Economies Prioritise Male Interests. They Must Be Changed
In the collective consciousness, the economist exists as a middle-aged man, bespectacled and clad in a suit, whose unhealthy pallor betrays a hermit-like lifestyle led in the confines of a library. Of course, this image isn’t a particularly fair reflection of the discipline, or its practitioners. Some, for instance, will be aware that in the last few years a number of economists have experimented with contact lenses. Nevertheless, the stereotype remains instructive: the large majority of economists are men, and given the positions they hold, and influence they exert, such homogeneity is a cause for concern.
Many operate at the highest levels of governance, where economists comprise an integral cog within the policy-making machine. From this lofty position, their male experience, along with that of their political counterparts, permeates the legislative process, and consequently, male interests - intentionally or otherwise - are formally prioritised and coded into the law. For despite claims to the contrary, no economic decision can be gender neutral; the diverging roles men and women play in the economy make it impossible. And herein lies the problem: fair economic policy is predicated on recognition of this fact. Disappointingly, few policymakers seem capable of doing this, and more disturbingly, some actually seem unwilling. As a result, discriminatory economic policy continues to be passed. Whether tax breaks that benefit rich, property-owning men, or public service cuts that encumber single mothers, the pattern of prejudice is clear: when it comes to the economy, women tend to lose.
The sexism of austerity
Austerity politics, implemented across much of Europe following the Great Recession of 2008, embodied this bias in its most brazen and destructive form. Borrowing from the same phrasebook, governments justified its rolling out using cynically collective language. ‘Everybody must live within their means’, they implored, warning that ‘the pinch would be felt by all’. These attempts to engender a sense of national unity, an all-in-it-together camaraderie, masked the grim reality that women would shoulder most of the financial burden. Irish reduction of child benefits; Portuguese slashing of family allowance; Montenegrin cuts to family assistance - they would do so everywhere.
In the UK, where austerity was rigorously imposed, the House of Commons Library found that 86% of the financial burden between 2010-2017 fell on women, and cuts were estimated to have cost them £79bn, compared to a relatively paltry £13bn for men. The distribution was so unequal that a 2018 UN report on poverty described the UK’s austerity-hit welfare system as ‘so sexist it may as well have been compiled by a group of misogynists in a room’, and branded it ‘a disgrace’. And this was no anomaly; Europe is replete which such stories. Spain’s sweeping austerity programme was another that carried a particularly gendered sting. To the sociologist, Inés Campillo Poza, the effects were flagrant: they ‘had a far greater impact on women’ and caused the ‘deepening [of] imbalances already present prior to the crisis.’ Along with the expected cuts, pay freezes and suspensions of investment - which Poza concluded ‘primarily affected women’ - the country also, rather symbolically, closed the Equality Ministry, and slashed the gender equality budget from €43 million in 2008 to €19.741 million 2017.
In neighbouring Portugal the government showed similar callousness. A 2018 UN report entitled The Impact of Economic Reforms and Austerity Measures on Women’s Human Rights summarised in depressing detail how Portuguese women were ‘particularly affected by the cumulative effects of crisis, fiscal policy and austerity measures’. Such prejudice it saw as evidence that the government had ‘neither conducted an assessment on the gender equality of such measures, nor developed a strategy to balance inequality’. The damage listed in the report was all encompassing. From reduction of public spending in health and education, and raising of VAT, to the restriction of the Guaranteed Minimum Income scheme, it was primarily institutions and initiatives on which women heavily relied that were the worst cut. Discriminatory changes to taxation then compounded these problems.
We care not
It’s this reliance on public services - the provision and for employment - that made women so vulnerable to austerity. Indeed, investment in the sector is critical in the fight for gender equality. Its decimation, thus, has been devastating, particularly in the area of social care. On that front, Ireland, Spain, Greece and the UK have been singled out for failing to fund their social care systems, the sacrifice in each instance made on the altar of ‘public spending cutbacks’. By way of context, a study from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in 2019 found that a quarter of lone-parents in Ireland reported unmet childcare needs. While in Spain, 22% of families were similarly deprived. That Europe’s population is ageing hasn't helped either. In the UK, analysis by Age UK found that in 2018 1.2m people over 65 were estimated to have had unmet care needs.
The damaging effects of these deficits for women have been severe. Not only do they make up 70% of the dwindling social care workforce in Europe, and are both overworked (if still in a job) and underpaid, they’re also, as researcher UN researcher Magdalena Sepúlveda has shown, more likely to require care themselves, which, owing to the cuts, they’re less likely to have access to. Responding to the need, women themselves have assumed much of this responsibility that was once the state’s, giving unpaid and informal care, often at great personal cost. In fact, the increase in unpaid care has been so large a 2016 UN report found a quarter of EU women weren’t working because of additional ‘care and other family responsibilities’, to say nothing of the emotional labour exerted. This development speaks directly to a warning given by the European Women’s Lobby that the ‘shift from public care services to unpaid care work within the household poses a severe threat to gender equality in Europe’, which, if left unchecked, could usher us toward a ‘return to more traditional gender roles’ - risking years of social progress.
Backward steps are also being taken in terms of equal pay, where, according to the 2016 study Austerity and Gender Wage Inequality in EU Countries, austerity has put at risk ‘the relatively little progress achieved in Europe so far’. In 2018, across the 27 EU member states, women on average earned 16% less than men. In Germany alone, the Federal Statistics Office found it was 21% less. Besides its obvious injustice, it’s sharpened the gendered impact of countless other issues, like the Europe-wide affordable housing crisis, which has left 1 in 10 EU citizens overburdened with housing costs. A 2018 investigation by the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) found that in the UK, the average cost of rent takes 43% of a woman’s median earnings, while taking just 28% of a man’s. And to varying degrees, this trend is a feature of European life. It means that job loss carries a disproportionately greater financial risk for women, and can force them to remain in employment that’s unfulfilling, unfairly remunerated, or where treatment is bad.
Austerity has hyper-charged a bias that has long existed, and in doing so laid bare the egregious extent to which our economies favour men, who set their rules, remain their chief beneficiaries, and suffer least when they flounder. And actually, the job they’re doing isn’t a particularly good one. In much of the West, inequality, not only between genders, but regions and generations, is rampant. Indeed, it feels uncontroversial to say our economic systems are not serving us as they should. The question is: what do we do about it?
In an attempt to answer this, it’s useful to remind ourselves of the UN’s declaration that ‘non-discrimination and equality constitute a fundamental aspect of states’ human rights obligations’. As the above has shown, these obligations are currently being flouted - a failure that provides an obvious starting point. States must adopt a human rights framework to audit economic policies, and the differing roles men and women occupy in the economy need recognition. In this light, honoring non-discrimination and equality principles should be immediate obligations when implementing macroeconomic policies - they should be guaranteed, it should be standard practice. How likely this is given the current gender complexion of the discipline remains questionable: as Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo has bemoaned, ‘there are not enough women in the economics profession, period’.
That being said, efforts to change things are well underway, the aforementioned WBG think tank, among others, leading the push for the creation of - in its own words - a ‘caring economy that promotes gender equality’. Its analysis is guided by the simple mantra: who stands to benefit? The question is a bold one, and one bound to ruffle feathers. We must all ask it more stridently. For if we fail to do so, and economics remains disproportionately in male hands, hopes of a fairer future will likely be futile. The current custodians have shown they are content presiding over a system that preferences their own interests, seemingly irrespective of the costs. We can't allow this. The economic discrimination against women must end. Enough damage has already been done.